The Portland Phoenix

Politics & Other Mistakes: Full house

Maine’s policy on casinos is easy to explain.

There isn’t one.

The state’s two gambling emporiums (emporia?) came into existence after expensive referendums (referenda?) were pushed through by local front groups for big, out-of-state corporations (evil cabals?).

This doesn’t always work. One initiative to allow a casino run by a Maine Indian tribe and another by a skeezy promoter with a history of legal problems both failed, the first because of a mix of puritanism and racism, and the second because voters aren’t quite as stupid as some not-so-slick connivers seem to think.

So, winning the right to open a casino is basically a crapshoot.

That’s not a bad system if you’re more into irony than public policy. But if you care about fairness and common sense, it’s a ridiculous way to decide who deserves a license to operate slot machines and roulette wheels.

During the recent legislative session, a bill to allow the state’s Native Americans to open casinos – something nearly every other tribe in the United States already has the right to do – passed in both chambers, but was vetoed by Gov. Janet Mills. Mills thought the bill wasn’t specific enough about the whats and wheres.

From her veto message: “Maine’s existing casinos were approved only when it was clearly understood where they would be located, what they would look like, and whether there was strong local support for them to open.”

Almost none of that is true.

Prior to the votes, locations were, at best, vague, and after the vote, there were numerous design changes on both buildings in Bangor and Oxford. As for local backing, it was mixed, at best. Also, there was no mention by the then-owners that they’d be selling out to private companies in Pennsylvania and Kentucky just as soon as they could put their signatures on those lucrative deals.

It’s well past time for Mills and her anti-gambling cronies to stop jerking around Maine’s tribes – and everyone else who wants to get into the gambling business. The state needs to approve a set of straightforward rules that would allow anyone to open a casino so long as they have a reasonably clean police record and access to sufficient cash.

By “sufficient,” I mean “excessive.”

The tired argument against this idea is that there’d be too much gambling. The competing operations would end up putting each other out of business.

The answer to this nonsense is simple: So what?

If Maine has too many casinos for the number of customers, some of them will go bankrupt. Others will be sold off and turned into marijuana growing operations, feed and grain stores, or evangelical churches preaching the evils of games of chance.

It doesn’t matter, because in every case, the state will have already collected a hefty licensing fee, plus money for security and other costs. Maybe the unfortunate developers also had to shell out for infrastructure improvements to accommodate the traffic that never showed up. They undoubtedly would have paid some property taxes, excise taxes, and the price of whatever entertainment licenses they thought they’d need.

There’s plenty of money to be made off folks with Las Vegas dreams and business plans from the boondocks. And after a year or so of chaotic openings and closings, the number of casinos would settle down to whatever level the market could bear.

This approach wouldn’t make Maine’s Indian tribes happy, because they’d have to compete in a flooded wagering market. But they’d be at no more of a disadvantage than anyone else, and perhaps some enlightened investors would see a partnership with Native Americans as giving them an edge in a market overrun with nasty greedheads.

I don’t expect the governor to embrace this idea, even though it will pump a lot of money into state coffers. The existing casinos will spend heavily to defeat it. The religious right will see it as a sign of the apocalypse. But everyone else – including those of us who have no interest in gambling – ought to appreciate the benefit.

Unlike anything else connected with gambling, this is a sure winner.

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